Do Toxic People Even Exist?

Whenever I hear the term “toxic person,” I picture a glow-in-the-dark green zombie covered in radioactive waste.

Personally, I consider this to be the proper definition of a toxic person. I don’t think too many people agree with me, though.

There are tons of blog posts out there, not to mention comments on Facebook and other social media, urging us to purge so-called toxic people from our lives.

Someone talks trash to you? Kick ’em to the curb.

Do they rain on your parade and stick pins in your dream balloons? Send them packing.

Are they giving you the silent treatment? Good riddance!

Is it really that easy to fix your relationships that way?


I don’t think so.

Real life rarely consists of villains and heroes.

Most of us are part villain, at least sometimes, and part hero. We muddle through and do our best.

Sometimes, without wanting or meaning to, we become the villain in someone else’s life.

Other times, people become villains in ours.

Who’s toxic? And who’s judging?

By the way, I’m talking here about garden-variety villains. These are not rapists, murders, thieves or criminals of any kind; they’re just people who make us feel bad.

We like to label them “toxic” as if they had the power, like radioactive zombies, to infect everyone around them.

But really, the yuck is not about who they are, but about what’s going on between us and them.

If I get into a relationship with someone, and come away feeling more bad than good, I have to ask myself, “What is it about this relationship that feels bad to me?”

If I ask myself instead, “What is it about this person that feels bad to me?,” I’ve lost an opportunity for personal growth.

There’s nothing for me to learn about myself if that person is just toxic. Except that, Gee, aren’t I a good judge of character? Good thing I dodged that bullet!

Let’s say I have a “toxic” friend who’s always putting me down.

If I label her as a toxic person and throw her out of my life, I’ve learned nothing except how to remove people from my life. (Admittedly for some, that’s a good lesson.)

But if I ask myself about the relationship, including my part in it, I might discover that I seem to be attracted to people who put me down.

They reflect my low self-esteem, remind me of home, or in some other way keep me stuck in self-defeating patterns.

Yes, some people do seem to alienate just about everyone around them. But if you refuse to engage in a toxic relationship with them, even the most relationally challenged person can be reasonably good to you.

If you’ve entered into a toxic relationship with someone who’s advertising for a partner (“Come be my friend! Get insulted and undermined at every turn! I will make your life miserable!”), there’s something there for you to learn.

Individual people aren’t toxic, but relationships definitely can be.

Photo courtesy of

Do You Have an Inner Bully?

Bully tripping someoneOne day, almost 20 years ago, I was standing on a corner waiting for the light to change so I could cross the street.

I was spaced out, not thinking about much of anything, when I suddenly heard a faint voice inside my head.

It wasn’t so much a voice as a feeling. But it had a definite message.

Out of nowhere, it said to me, “You suck.”

Short, but not sweet.

This was how I learned I had low self-esteem; I heard a bully talking to me, from right inside my own head!

After the bully showed herself like that, I knew something had to change.

Over time, I grew less self-critical to the point where my inner bully was replaced by an inner bystander, then an inner friend, and now I even have a part-time inner gladiator who defends against bullies, inside or out.

(But only part-time. It’s hard to get good help.)

Mostly it was being in therapy that helped me make headway.

As a therapist myself these days, I meet many people who are very much aware that they have a bully living inside their heads.

That’s the first step to overcoming self-criticism; you have to notice it to deal with it.

Some people enter therapy just to figure out how they can shut that inner bully up.

It’s easier said than done.

In this article that I wrote for, I focus on the hidden downsides of ditching the inner bully. If you don’t address the reasons for the bully’s presence, you can’t fully commit to getting rid of it.

Here’s the post:

How to Deal with the Bully Inside Your Head

What do you think? Do you have a bully inside your head? If so, what’s worked for you in overcoming self-criticism?

How to Stop Procrastinating (Or Not)

I was playing hooky at the beach this past week.

I was playing hooky at the beach this past week.

It’s ironic that it’s taken me so long to share this post with you, but hey, we therapists are only human.

Scratch the surface of someone who writes about procrastination and you’ll find a procrastinator underneath.

Okay, so now that I’ve outed myself as a some-time procrastinator, I’d like to share a recent post with you from my blog.

You’ll notice I came up with 6 practical tips for overcoming procrastination. If there were a 7th it would be, “Get it done before you go on a road trip with your friend from college.”

Too specific? Maybe. But that’s my personal excuse for not posting this one sooner:

The Procrastination Prescription

Try This New Spin on Goal-Setting

arrow hitting targetRecently I listened to an interview with Chalene Johnson, who introduced me to a new idea for goal-setting.

At first I was skeptical, but when I actually went through Chalene’s steps, it worked!

Here’s what she suggested:

1. Set 10 goals.

WHAT? TEN goals? That’s too many, isn’t it?

Trust Chalene. Write down 10 goals across a wide range of areas of your life.

Here are the areas Chalene suggests for your goals:

  1. Educational (a “get smart” goal — something you want to learn more about)
  2. Pure joy — something just for the fun of it
  3. Love life
  4. Family / friends
  5. Spirituality
  6. Environment — Meaning where you spend much of your time, such as your home or workplace
  7. Purpose / profession
  8. Financial
  9. Fitness / nutrition
  10. Mental wellness — I like to think of this as emotional well-being.

Once you’ve come up with a goal for each area — or 10 goals in any area, if you prefer …

2. Figure out your personal “push” goal.

What is the one thing that will facilitate the achievement of all or most of your 10 goals?

Chalene refers to this as your “push” goal because it acts like a domino, pushing the other ones over.

In the interview she gave the example of getting more sleep. For some people, this is the one thing that could make all the difference in achieving their heart’s desire.

In doing this exercise I discovered that my personal push goal is to budget my time.

I personally need to parcel my time into packages and assign specific activities to those packages — including rest.

I can make huge strides toward my 10 goals, but only if I focus on my “push” goal of time management.

3. Focus on your push goal.

Your 10 goals should fall like dominoes behind the right “push” goal. What’s yours?

I’ve been focusing on time management for the past week. Planning my time has become the most important thing I do.

Once the time is allotted for a given task, I can sit down and do it. Because the time is designated for this particular task, I’m free of the “Should I really be doing this right now, or is there something more important I need to focus on?” blues.

When I take the time to plan my time, it’s astonishing how more productive and balanced I feel.

Thanks, Chalene!

With all this focus on how I spend my time, I’ve decided to stop slavishly posting on Tina’s Tidbits every single Saturday.

This is my 170th post, and I’ve never missed a Saturday. But it takes longer than you might think to put together a thoughtful blog post.

Blogging is only one of my activities, yet it takes up more than its share of my time.

I also speak, teach and counsel in addition to trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, see family and friends, travel, exercise, learn Spanish, and find time for my guilty pleasure: Reality TV. (Wait — does watching The Bachelor count as a spiritual goal?)

So I’m officially hanging up my “weekly blogger” skates and putting on the plain “blogger” shoes.

I have blogging commitments at and, and I’ll continue to share those posts, with exclusive commentary, right here on Tina’s Tidbits.

I’ll also share any worthwhile tidbits or “deep thoughts” (air quotes) as they come to me. I like talking things over with you, and I value your feedback.

But I’m excited to start taking the time I need in ALL areas of my life, including training to walk the 2015 Portland Marathon in October!

So don’t be alarmed if you don’t see a post on any given Saturday. I’m still here.

I’m just managing my time differently.

I hope this post inspires you to find your own “push” goal, the one thing that will help you achieve everything you desire.

Photo courtesy of bplanet /

Why Our Relationships Hold the Key to Personal Growth

Bride and groom walking away on the roadThis week I’ve got an article I really want to share with you because it gets right to the heart of one of the most important truths about our relationships.

We tend to be attracted to partners who help us recreate the same troublesome dynamics we were hurt by earlier in life.

For example, a woman marries a man with an addictive and unpredictable personality, just like her mother.

Or a man marries an emotionally unavailable woman who unconsciously reminds him of the stoic grandparents who raised him. But check this out…

On the surface, she may seem wildly different from his grandparents. She’s outgoing, socially active and superficially affectionate.

But in subtle ways — ways neither of them recognize — she keeps a wall up, shutting him out. Just like the people who raised him.

Freud called this “the repetition compulsion.” We’re compelled to repeat (so we can fix) the painful dynamics of early formative relationships.

The trouble is, we usually try to fix the other person.

This is not a winning strategy.

Fortunately, there’s a silver lining. If both partners are willing to look inside themselves, a great deal of personal growth can take place. The compulsion to repeat difficult relationship dynamics can be transformed.

I like to think that if just one partner is brave enough to take an unflinching look at him- or herself and take some emotional risks, he or she can experience growth within the relationship.

And who knows? Maybe the reluctant partner will follow suit.

Gandhi’s advice, to BE the change you wish to see in the world, is true in relationships as well.

Enjoy Marian Stansbury’s excellent article at the following link:

Revisiting Childhood Wounds in the Context of Couples Work

Photo courtesy of Just2Shutter /

“Sorry” Isn’t Always Good Enough


The dock in the foreground is covered in sea lions. They’re not apologizing for eating all the fish. I don’t think they’re sorry.

I’m on vacation this week, and my mom has come to town to join me on a couple of road trips.

A few days ago we were in the tippy-left corner of Oregon, visiting the historic city of Astoria.

Nestled in the hills at the mouth of the Columbia River, the town has a generous supply of hotels with river views. We checked out several on arrival before selecting the one that seemed to have the best location and amenities for our purposes.

It was by no means the least expensive, but it seemed like paying a little extra would be worth it after a long day of travel.

Although the hotel was empty when we arrived (we had our pick of rooms), it was well before check-in time and our room wasn’t ready.

No problem; we had places to go and sights to see.

We were given our keys then and there, which was convenient, but told to come back at 3pm.

Vintage trolley

The restored 1913 trolley takes you on a guided tour for $1.

We gave them an extra hour and returned at 4pm after riding the vintage trolley and strolling the downtown area.

We were ready to put our feet up, so we unpacked the car and went straight up to the room, loaded with bags and eager for a rest.

We were greeted by the sight of unmade beds and garbage on the floor.

An hour past check-in time, the room had still not been cleaned.

I made my way back down to the front desk. The person was very nice.

She explained that they’d been having some “communication issues” with Housekeeping due to their computer system.

She explained that the hotel had been full the day before, and there were many rooms to clean.

She gave me keys to a different room.

She may or may not have said she was sorry. With all the explaining she was doing, if she apologized, it didn’t register.

The 125-foot Astoria Column stands on a hill and commands a birds-eye view of the city if you're willing to endure the 164 steps to the top. Um ... maybe next time.

The 125-foot Astoria Column stands on a hill and commands a birds-eye view of the city if you’re willing to endure the 164 steps to the top. Um … maybe next time.

Once ensconced for the night, my mom clicked on the TV to find out what was on the many channels offered by the hotel.

(My mom likes her TV in the evening, so the many-channels thing is a big deal when choosing a hotel.)

She pressed the “Menu” button on the remote. Nothing happened.

We tried pressing every button but couldn’t locate a TV guide channel. What do you do with 500 channels and no guide?

We called down to the front desk to get some coaching on how to use the remote, and a nice young woman came up to check it out.

She couldn’t get the TV guide channel, either.

She explained that all the remotes had just been replaced, and they may not have been programmed correctly.

She said, “Sorry about that.” There was no offer of recourse or amends.

We asked whether there might be a local newspaper with TV listings available. The young woman was dubious, but did manage to locate a rumpled copy of a national newspaper.

My mom made do with the bare-bones listings in the paper, and was soon enjoying her many channels.

Although everyone we dealt with that day was friendly, I got the feeling they were more interested in making us understand their difficulties than apologizing for ours.

Obviously, they hadn’t read my post on How to Apologize. ;)

Not being able to check in to a clean room or find out what’s on TV are “first-world problems,” to be sure. Then again, my mom and I live in the first world.

We’d been traveling all day. We were tired. We wanted to relax and watch TV.

We were expecting a clean room and a working TV remote for the money we paid.

It wasn’t just the problems themselves; it was the lack of visible concern about them by the staff that threw us off.

But you know what?

Thinking about our experience on the way home, I realized that if I go back to Astoria, I’ll probably stay in that same hotel again.

My disappointment, while real, was not big enough to outweigh my satisfaction with the hotel’s location.

If we’d had a worse experience — say, been robbed by the maids or found a mouse in the oatmeal — then it would be a clear case of “never again.”

But the problems were easy to live with, and so my view of the hotel is more gray than black or white.

When I think of it, my thoughts are that it’s not perfect, but the location is terrific.

All in all, our visit to Astoria was very pleasant. Apparently the city gets six feet (yes, six FEET) of rain per year. We were there for a couple of the rare dry, sunny days.

Life is definitely like a box of chocolates.

Which we had with us, of course. What’s a road trip without chocolate?

How to Recognize When You’re Being Passive-Aggressive

2 woman at oddsWho among us can honestly say they’ve never behaved in a passive-aggressive way?

When I’m not being assertive, passive-aggression is my go-to. I figure it’s better than outright aggression, and I don’t seem to be wired for passivity, so sometimes it feels like the best option.

There are hundreds — maybe thousands — of subtle ways to avoid being assertive.

This week’s article, in which I happen to be quoted, is a survey of just a few of the twisted moves we make to get around saying what we mean.

Most of these sound pretty intentional to me, and fall more on the aggressive side.

But as I say in the article, I don’t think passive-aggressive behavior is used as a weapon on purpose. At least, not usually.

I doubt most of us even recognize what we’re doing when we make a passive-aggressive maneuver.

In those not-so-proud moments, we’re setting aside our right as adults to simply state our wants, needs, preferences and opinions clearly.

Why is being passive-aggressive so much easier than asserting ourselves?

Check out the article at this link and let me know what you think:

Don’t fool yourself: Seven signs that you’re being passive-aggressive – The Washington Post